Category Archives: Thesis advice

Submitted: now what?

Submitting my thesis was not the relief I thought it would be.

After receiving feedback and comments from two of my PhD supervisors on my draft thesis, I worked for a few more weeks on updating and editing the manuscript. Until finally, on the 28 June 2013, I walked into the Faculty secretariat and handed over eight pristine printed and bound copies of my thesis – several years’ work condensed into a box. And it was a seriously underwhelming experience.

The secretariat of the Faculty was almost apologetic at the lack of pomp and ceremony. “Ok, that’s it, thanks”, I was told. And that was it indeed. No taking it back now. The waves of relief I expected, the rush of joy: none of that hit me.

Since then I’ve found myself with plenty of work to do to keep me busy, but not quite so busy as in the last months of the thesis finalisation (I am not working weekends, hurray!). All the items on my to-do list that had been dropping in priority were suddenly again near the top. I found myself carrying out research again, finding out new things, preparing papers for conferences, developing ideas for publications. It’s actually quite nice and exciting. But I have a niggle in the back of my mind. I feel like all of this is just me killing time until the Big Days. Those Big Days are the two defences I have to do.

My internal defence is scheduled for the 26 August. In Belgium, the PhD defence system involves two steps. The first step is an “internal” or “private” defence with the members of the PhD jury. In my case, I have seven professors on my jury. If the majority of these professors agree that my PhD is sufficiently good then I can go on to defend my PhD publicly. The world and its mother can attend the public defence if they so wish – and the public is invited to pose questions also!

The jury can make one of three decisions:

–> the PhD fails – that’s the end of the road;

–> the PhD needs some (usually considerable) corrections: the researcher needs to make the corrections, resubmit and go through the internal defence again;

–> the PhD is good enough to pass and can go to public defence.

Needless to say I am crossing fingers for option number three. But it’s still a strange time now. I am waiting for the procedure to continue, but everything is out of my control. After several years working on one project, it’s an odd feeling to think about it being judged (probably harshly) by people I hardly know.

T-minus circa six weeks and counting to Big Day number one.


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When the writing doesn’t flow

How do you overcome the writing block?

Some days writing is easy. You sit down, you retrace where you left off, you start writing and you enter ‘the flow’. Other days you wonder if ‘the flow’ really exists. Is this ‘flow’ a myth? Have I actually ever experienced it? Is it an elusive writer’s fantasy? You can get so bogged down in the ‘I can’t write’ frame of mind that the way out seems blocked.

But, as with any down time, there is always an up time. The silver lining, so to speak. It’s just a case of keeping the chin up, being confident you can get over this block and not getting overwhelmed!

I’ve come across a few strategies that can help, depending on who you are and how you work. Some people suggest that setting aside two hours everyday at your best (most productive) time of the day for writing is essential. Two hours every morning? Two hours at night? Whenever. Others suggest that blocking yourself off from the world for longer periods of time is more effective – you are living with your piece of writing and it’s all there is in your life! A friend of mine recently completed her thesis. I saw her yesterday for the first time in six months. She moved back in with her parents in the countryside for those six months, cut herself off from distractions and just wrote the damn thing! Anyway, everyone has different ways of working, but if you don’t know yours it’s good to test a few options.

For those days when writing two sentences seems like dragging blood out of a stone there are some simpler tactics. I like to write something, anything, to get my brain into the creative mood. Emails don’t count – they are usually about responding to requests or writing requests and are not the most creative things in the world. In fact, they are a distraction. But anything else: a short outline of what I’m going to write in this chapter, an introductory paragraph, even a blog post to get me started. All of this helps go from ‘ah, I can’t write’ to ‘I can put some sentences together’. It’s a start!

And then, it’s important to take breaks. Not just to drink coffee (which, let’s face it, may be tasty but isn’t healthy), but also just to change scene, let your brain settle, get some fresh air. Sometimes even taking a day off if you struggle several days in a row is the best thing in the world to do. You don’t want to accumulate a habit of unproductive days, so just take a break, take a day in the park and come back to it again fresh and rested.

So, now that I’ve gotten my fingers typing and my brain constructing sentences by writing this post, here’s hoping I can get into ‘the flow’ today!

P.S. if you like more structured, targeted PhD thesis writing advice, check out the book “Authoring a PhD” by Patrick Dunleavy.

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Filed under Academia and research, Getting through the PhD, Thesis advice, Writing

Transcribing interviews

This is possibly one of the most time-consuming tasks in my PhD work, and often seems pointless, since I’m not doing any fancy quantitative coding exercise. I carry out interviews with policy-makers and stakeholders as a way of gathering information that is not freely available: information on the background of policy negotiations, on what was really discussed and was a major issue, on how stakeholders accessed policy-makers at the right moment, and whether these stakeholders considered themselves to have had an impact on the final policy result. I love carrying out the interviews – it’s a great way to meet people, and to discuss issues that are interesting to both of us! But I am not a fan of transcribing. So I have lately developed a kind of save-time, shaved-down version of it that combines transcription and analysis in one, and saves me hours of rewinding and relistening just to catch that one fuzzy word…

This is probably not good advice for new PhD students, or for those who are interested in the precise words used by the interviewees, or interested in the reactions when said interviewees were asked a particularly controversial question. If all you need is information, then here’s a nice few tips I’ve picked up along the way:

– When you ask an interviewee if you can record the conversation, make sure you start recording at the very beginning, and record yourself speaking/introducing yourself first. Demonstrate by your own example that the recorder can pretty much be ignored (as long as you have enough battery power, that is). The only downside to this is that you will have to listen to yourself also when you play back the interview (and everyone knows it’s a bit strange to hear your own voice)!

– For transcribing, I once transcribed pretty much every word of my early interviews, but discovered this was unnecessary and pretty unhelpful when it came to thrashing out the main messages. Transcribing the main points is enough, but you will have to listen to your recording properly to get those messages. In my experience, this is actually a much more effective way to retain the information gained than simply writing down individual words one after another!

– If someone interrupts their own idea in mid-sentence (quite usual in general conversation) with another idea and then another idea, listen to the whole segment first, then stop the recording and write down the main ideas.

– If you can transcribe these main points in bullet points or paragraphs, this will make it a lot easier for you to make use of the notes when writing up your chapters later. But note that people rarely speak in clear paragraphs, so you will have to distil this yourself. This is an example of you already jumping to the analysis of the information by whistling it down to one main idea per bullet point/paragraph.

General comment: combine transcription and analysis and save time (yipee!).

Warning: don’t try this if you are planning to codify particular words used in interviewee responses!


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Six months to go!

Well, the lack of input into this blog over the past year may indicate higher levels of activity in research work. In fact, that is totally true! Somehow, somewhere along the way and over the course of the last year, things just went “click” and fell into place. I picked up a routine, I worked out the dreaded conceptual framework (political researchers, you know what I’m talking about), and I just got on with it. Finally!

But I’ve hit that panic station stage: six months to complete the full thesis draft, ah!

And what’s worse, I’ve discovered that although I enjoy writing, I just find editing and correcting manuscripts so incredibly uninspiring.

Here’s a status report. My thesis will comprise of 8 chapters. I have three chapters completed, and another two chapters drafted. The remaining three chapters are in a rather detailed bullet point format. On paper, that means I’m not doing so badly, that’s quite good progress… In reality, every time I send a draft of a chapter or outline of future chapters to my doctoral committee, I kind of cross my fingers and hope they say “oh well I suppose it’s good enough”. But they never do! It may be quite ok, but they push me to rewrite, rethink, restructure, until I occasionally hit walls of overwhelmingness. The constant circle of writing, rewriting, and rewriting again, sometimes makes progress look a bit minimal!

But all is not lost. I am basically fed-up. There’s nothing more motivating to get on with something than seeing the potential to have a life again. In 2013, my friends can expect to hear from me, my family can expect to see me, and the world had better watch out, because I will be free, and you can call me doctor. Oh yeah.

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Filed under Getting through the PhD, Thesis advice